It’s a big day in Loudoun County. Today is the first day of a new school year for more than 83,000 Loudoun public school students, plus several thousand more who will hit the books in home schools and private schools. But that’s just the start.
The county also opens three new long-awaited public schools: Goshen Post Elementary, Willard Intermediate School, and the Academies of Loudoun. The Academies will house expanded versions of the Academy of Science, Monroe Advanced Technical Academy, and the Academy of Engineering and Technology, serving high school students with interests ranging from biomedical research to culinary arts.
The new school year also brings a major milestone for the county’s youngest students. Today is the first day every Loudoun kindergartner will be offered a full academic day. This comes after years of Loudoun being branded as one of three school districts in the state, and the only one in the DC metro region, to not have universal full-day kindergarten. The work to achieve it began in 2014, when the School Board hired Superintendent Eric Williams and charged him with expanding full-day kindergarten from, at the time, just 11 percent of the county.
“Starting this year, we’re providing full-day kindergarten to all of our students in order to give them the best possible start to their academic year,” Williams said.
To get there, his team came up with a plan to construct classrooms additions, plus the School Board agreed to allocate more operating dollars to the effort and to temporarily reassign a few students from crowded schools to schools that have more space.
That’s all good news for 5-year-old Emmalyn Homcy, who begins kindergarten at Frederick Douglas Elementary today. Her parents, Brent and Rachael, have talked to her for months about her big day. When her father mentioned to her Monday that she starts kindergarten this week, she replied, “You said that already.”
“She’s ready,” he later said with a smile.
Ahead of the first day, Emmalyn carefully organized her freshly purchased notebooks, folders, pencils, markers, and glue sticks—most still in their packages—and secured them in her glittery pink backpack. “It’s kind of heavy now,” she said as she hoisted it over her shoulder. “But I can do it.”
After attending a small preschool, the kindergartener said she’s excited for a big school. She recently toured Frederick Douglass to see what to expect. “There’s a big garden and there’s computers in my classroom,” she said. “It’s new, but it will be great.”
That’s about how Brandon Chambers feels this week. At 26 years old, he’s beginning a second career as a Spanish teacher at Rock Ridge High School. He’s spent his summer preparing lesson plans and decorating his classroom with posters that read qué, por qué and cómo, inviting students to ask questions.
“I want to strike up a conversation with my students from day one,” Chambers said. “I want students to feel like they’ve walked into a safe environment where they won’t be afraid to make mistakes and ask questions.”
After working in retail for eight years, Chambers felt a pull to find work that would be more fulfilling and help empower others. “So I tried my hand at substitute teaching and it was super rewarding,” he said. “And, in the long term, it will have paid off greatly as a societal contribution.”
Chambers is very aware that many of his students will be freshmen who are also experiencing big changes this week. “I hope I can be a mentor to those kids. When I started high school I started in a new county so I didn’t know a single person on the first day. I want to be that teacher that helps with that transition,” he said. “All around, I’m just super excited.”
In a video welcoming students and staff back to school, Superintendent Williams talked about how many teachers, students, and the county as a whole are stepping into many firsts this school year. Among them, he noted, is the mental health support teams that are being created and staffed at every middle school. This comes one year after each high school received staff for mental health support teams, which are made up of school counselors, social workers and psychologists.
He said it is part of the school system’s effort to develop “the whole child” and nurture a strong community at each school.